Q&A: East End accessories designer Fred Butler
Even among an increasingly polymath fashion crowd, Fred Butler stands out. She has, at different times, been sculptor, artist, statement prop and accessories designer, lending her unique visual skills and unabashedly bright upbeat aesthetic to bands and brands including Lady Gaga, Patrick Wolf, Sigur Ros and Bjork; Samsung, Swatch, Diesel, Nicola Formichetti and Nike; the V&A, Red Bull Catwalk Studio, the list goes on. Remember the blue telephone hat Gaga wore in the 10 minute video for her track Telephone? Fred’s. With her candy-coloured wardrobe and ever changing hair colour, the maker/artist is a bright, distinctive presence in the East End, where her workshop - in the iconic Lighthouse Studios - are based. In her ‘spare' time, Fred is a DJ, Run Dem Crew member and blogger, with one of the liveliest sites on the net, which she once described as ‘an extension to my vision.’ I spoke to Fred before Christmas about life, art, the universe and everything.
Bel: What have you been up to recently? Fred: I just came back from teaching in Algeria. I just want to travel now so it’s good to get these opportunities to see the world. I do lots of workshops, teaching people making but for fun, frivolous things.
Bel: Is there an increased interest in learning to make? Fred: Yes. People have different skill levels people. I encourage students to help each other because, if one person finishes before everyone else, they get bored and restless so I encourage them to help someone else and then they get to know each other. Everything I’ve done is loosely based on accessories but I’ve done kite-making.
Bel: What’s your background? Fred: I did fashion at Brighton which had textiles, which is why I chose that course because I liked both. But that actually put me off fashion because it was so prescriptive. It was like, ‘pretend you’re Hussein Chalayan and design next season’. And I thought, I don’t want to pretend I’m anyone else. Can’t I do what I want to do? But I knew I wanted to be in fashion and I liked image and art direction. When I moved to London, I got work experience with the set designer Shona Heath who was working with Tim Walker. But then, I missed the actual fashion! So when I started on my own, I combined prop making with fashion and made accessories as wearable props and that became my USP.
Bel: How would you describe the pieces you create? Fred: I like to think of them as sculptures so you can have them hanging up as an ornament or you put them on if you want. They’re objects.
Bel: Colour is so important in your work. Fred: I love it. You can get a connection with someone through colour. I have that quote by Kandinsky over my desk: ‘Colour makes a moment true and superficial impression on a soul whose sensibility is slightly developed but to a more sensitive, the effect of colours is deeply and intensely moving.’ I operate in that realm of people who really like colour. That’s how I appreciate something.
Bel: Do you have favourite colours or combinations? Fred: I really like iridescent surfaces. That’s the ultimate. It came into fashion recently so you can get stuff on the high street.
Bel: Describe the sense of community amongst East London creatives, particularly here at Lighthouse Studios. You share a studio with Margot Bowman and JW Anderson, Jacey Withers and Kim Howells are just around the corner. Fred: Everyone’s here. When I first moved in here four years ago, I was with the knitter Craig Lawrence. There were seven churches in here. On a Sunday, it was crazy because they all had their own sound systems and they were all turning them up because they wanted to be the loudest. Kids running around because they were bored and playing. One by one, they moved out and the developer turned them into studios. I love going to other people’s exhibitions and that’s on the doorstep now because everyone’s studio is here and there are galleries popping up. Work and life is one thing. It's nice to be in that environment and not isoilated.
Bel: Where are your inspirations? Fred: When I was a kid, I loved Rubik’s Cubes so maybe that’s where my love for geometrics come from. When I’m making something, it’s more the technique of trying out how to make something in 3D, seeing how I can alter it and push it to put it on the body. I have a seed of something in my head that I know I want to create and then it’s the process of making that.
Bel: What do your pieces lend to a body? Fred: I just love fashion. That’s the way I enjoy expressing making things. Growing up with visuals, with magazines and books, that’s what I love. The stuff that goes down in history and images. And the live experience as well, of the catwalk, all that excitement.
Bel: Are there other designers you like at the moment? Fred: I like people who do fun stuff and who put a lot of consideration into it. I love Agi & Sam; menswear is the most fun.
Bel: What do you enjoy about collaborations? Fred: I’m really into other people. That enriches life. I loved the Swatch collaboration because that was a dream come true, but if I could work with anyone, I’d love to design an accessible jewellery line and get it onto the high street, like Claire’s Accessories. I make really silly, fun stuff that kids would love.
Bel: What’s coming up? Fred: I’m writing a book. I’ve never done that before so I want to put all my energy and focus in that. It’ll come out in the following spring. I’m doing the Marathon in April. I’m raising money for women and children in the DRC. Some musicians did an album there a few years back and I’m asking each one to make me a playlist for when I’m running. Then I’ll put it up on my website so people can buy them. I hope that either they or some associated musicians will be able to play at a party for me. The first musician I’ve asked is a guy called [avant-garde music artist] Actress. He created a ballet with artist Eddie Peake that was performed at St John's Church in Hackney.
Bel: Are you an avid runner? Fred: I’ve been running since last July. I feel empowered when I run, I feel very strong. It is good not to have your phone for an hour and just absorb London. And it’s good to get to know the city. I run with Run Dem Crew. I’ve met lots of new people I wouldn’t have come into contact with in fashion. We have a bike group as well. When we’re out together, I just think, this is bizarre. I never would have met you but for this one thing we have in common. The other thing I like is we go round the world. I’ve done a half marathon in Berlin, Copenhagen and Paris. I just want to travel and this is another way.
Bel: What is it about travel that grips you now? Fred: Life is too short and I haven’t travelled much up to this point. Last New Year’s Eve, I went to the Young Turks Music Festival in Mexico, which is something I’d always wanted to do. Loads of my friends went. We all had money and time to be there at the same time. It was full of colour … I’ve always been drawn to the textiles. I want to go to India next.
Bel: Describe the role music plays in your life? Fred: It’s one of my favourite things. I can’t make music myself. It’s a major frustration. I wouldn’t know where to begin but I DJ.
Bel: What is your current sound? Fred: When I DJ, I just want to get people off the chairs to dance. So I play uplifting music people haven’t heard for a while. At the moment, a lot of Eighties pop but from the house background, like S Express. There was a lot going on during the Eighties and some of it has really stood the test of time because the production was so good. Now, people pump out songs really quickly to get some kind of return on it. Then, you wanted to make a really good song to go on Top of the Pops and have your moment. It wasn’t so throwaway.
Bel: Do you have an opinion on throwaway culture? Fred: Yes, but I feel totally out of control. I don’t know what to do about it. You just have to take responsibility for yourself and hope everyone else will come round to that and hopefully, we’ll sort it out. It’s a bit terrifying, isn’t it? People often don’t know about issues. I’m really ignorant because I can’t cope with what’s going on. Just to get through my own day, focus on what I need to get done, is enough. I consciously don’t keep up with news which I admit is terrible.
Bel: What role does social media play for you? Fred: Because I’m into people, it’s a good way to network. If you start following someone on Instagram, it’s a peek in their world and you can exchange and get to know each other. I’ve been on Twitter since the beginning but Instagram is the main one. It’s more international because there’s no language involved.
SPONSOR FRED ON HER VIRGIN MONEY LONDON MARATHON RUN, APRIL 26, 2015: 'The money will be used to support women in Eastern DRC; strengthening the work Oxfam already do with communities on protection and working on women's and men's strategies for ensuring that women's concerns are addressed through the project,' says Fred. 'Targeting 56,000 direct beneficiaries of which half are women, the project aims to support protection committees for a to better ensure women’s right to protection in Eastern DRC.'